Friday, July 24, 2009

Pioneer Day: spookier and spookier.

I love blogging even though I know that most of my posts are read by just a couple dozen people at most. But there's something about these annual Pioneer Day posts -- both my 2007 and 2008 entries have brought unexpected wondrousness raining down on my head, blessings from Good Mother Internet and (I believe) my dear departed deadfolk. I've already blogged about the genealogical adventure in California triggered by the 2007 posting -- here's a little taste of what I received from last year's posting:

Eight months after Pioneer Day a historian named Mr. Calow, who lives in my ancestors' village of Sapcote, England Googled the words "Sapcote" + "almshouse" to see what he could find for a research project. When he clicked "search," up popped my 2008 Pioneer Day post. He emailed me, asking for more information about my ancestors to supplement his research, and I sent him all that I had available. In return for this small contribution to his project he used his expertise on Sapcote history to dig through the local resources at his disposal for anything and everything on my ancestors.

Now, we Mormons are incurable family history nuts (though I'm nuttier than most). Long before my time my family had gathered a lot of information on the Sapcote ancestral branch and I have been very familiar with all of it from childhood: records of major life events, letters and histories written by the more recent generations, and even some wonderful photos. But of course there was more out there waiting to be found, and Mr. Calow found it, and it was delightful. I was giddy for days.

My great-grandfather, Amos Brown Jr (subject of last year's Pioneer Day post), converted to the Mormon church in 1901 and less than a month later emigrated with his wife and child from England to the U.S. One thing that is clear from the letters and history in my family's possession is that Amos loved music more than just about anything. He was an exceptional singer from childhood, learned to play his father's accordion and, though poor, used the money he earned working in the stone quarries to purchase a violin. He then taught himself to play the violin as well and he and a friend became founding members of a string band that played at public events in Sapcote. So imagine how poignant it was to see this 1901 newspaper notice magically appear in my inbox:

April 1901
Bath Street, Sapcote.

J & W Harrold have received instruction from Mr Amos Brown who is leaving Sapcote and going abroad, to sell by Auction on Saturday next, April 6th 1901. A portion of the Household furniture and bedroom furniture, Kitchen and scullery Requisites. Violin and Bow, 3 octave organ, Accordian and other effects.

Far greater sacrifices have been made in the history of the world, but picturing him trading for his new faith the instruments that brought him such joy -- pretty powerful stuff.

That friend with whom Amos founded the Sapcote village band was named Reuben Seal, and decades after the young Amos moved to America, Reuben and Amos still consistently inquired about each others' welfare through the family letters. I had always wondered about Reuben, because it was clear that he and Amos shared a close bond, strengthened by their love of music. Mr. Calow saw Reuben's name popping up repeatedly in the family letters I had emailed to him and he uncovered this little gem -- a photo of the aged Reuben Seal from the local newspaper -- still playing his violin!

Mr. Calow also found a charming photo of Amos's father, Amos Brown Sr, that we didn't have. He's posing with two of his Sapcote buddies. In case you're wondering, Amos Sr is the old fellow with the hat, cane, black coat, and white beard.

We had known that Amos Brown Sr and his wife Sarah Letts Brown both lived long and were the oldest couple in Sapcote for several years. I felt that I knew Sarah well, as she was the main author of the early letters to Amos Jr, but there were no letters from her husband and consequently he was much a much dimmer figure in my imagination. Then another wonderful newspaper article transcription arrived in my email:

17 April 1925

Mr and Mrs Amos Brown celebrated their Diamond Wedding. Both were 83 years old and lived in the oldest house in the village. Mr Brown an old stockinger recalled the time when there were over 100 stocking frames in the village. He himself was
a footer working a wide frame which made six at a time. He used to earn nine shillings and sixpence a week which was very good money in those days. He had a family of nine and sixty grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren.

I can just see him talking to the newspaper man, getting misty-eyed over the Old Days.

I've saved the best for last. This one's much older, from a time when traces of the landless poor are usually limited to brief church records of baptisms, marriages, and burials. My great-great-great-great grandfather Thomas Ellis was born in 1769 and all we knew about him and his family were their names and the dates and locations of their major life events. But Mr. Calow knew where to look for more information and he found a letter to a local landowner from the landowner's employee, regarding the poverty-stricken Thomas Ellis and his wife and six daughters:

2 May 1800

"...I cannot forbear making one request in behalf of that poor Man Thomas Ellis. There is misery enough, no doubt, every where; but think what this poor fellow undergoes in maintaining himself, a Wife, and Six Children, in this dreadful scarcity, by his own hard labour. I am convinced he will not be able to do so long; he will work himself to Death; he swooned twice in his Frame last week, and this week he is so weak as not to be able to get what is necessary for the subsistance of his Family. I have already lent him Nine shillings and sixpence this Week, and I believe I should lend him as much more if he asked for it, he is such an honest Industrious man. He says if he had room to set Frames in, for his Children to work, he should maintain his Family with pleasure. You will recollect when you was last at Sapcote, that you ordered me to build a Shop for him at your expence; this I would have done immediately, if straw could have been found to cover it; but straw is not to be had. I have been talking with Mr. Lovett about it, and he as well as myself, sincerely hope that you will in this one instance consent that he may have a Shop covered with tiles. Consider, Sir, it is not pride that urges me to make this request, it is nothing but real necessity, and the pleasure one has in being the means of bettering the condition of an Industrious man. If you will but grant this, the poor man shall work in his own Shop in less than a Month. He says I am the best Friend he has in the World, but alas! What can I do for him without you enable me. I am to take all the trouble myself in building it; but it is you that must be his best Friend; and I have no doubt but that he has a grateful heart, and will be thankful for what you may do for him. He knows nothing of my mentioning his case to you..."

I'm reduced to tears every time I read it. Thomas Ellis's desperate situation and honest struggle to provide for his family over 200 years ago is likely lost to the world except for this letter. And now I have it. Wonderful. Wonderful that a kindly man took an interest in my ancestor's plight, wonderful that he secretly wrote a letter requesting means to aid him, wonderful that someone preserved and transcribed that letter, and wonderful that someone living thousands of miles away and whom I've never met voluntarily took the time to find it for me.*

The Internet is a miraculous realm, my friends. A glorious, glorious tangle of possibilities. How in the h*** am I supposed to have a social life with these mesmerizing dead people lurking in every corner?

Happy Pioneer Day, my dearest dead! I love you all -- even you cranks.** Send me more flashy genealogy miracles this year, okay?

* He found many other interesting things -- if you are a family member interested in seeing all that he sent, let me know and I will email it to you.
I'm also nearly finished scanning, ordering, transcribing, and footnoting the full collection of family letters from England, and I'll post them as soon as they're done. Isn't this why God created spinsters? I hope so, because I love this stuff and I'd rather call it a Calling than an Addiction.

** I'm talking to you, William P. Smith.

Friday, July 17, 2009

In my Father's house are many mansions.

Ten years ago, I made my first black friend.

Don't judge me. There just aren't that many 'round these parts.

Okay, go ahead and judge me, but please wait for the full story first.


Black fella wanders by as I am listening to Quincy Jones's gospel/soul/jazz/rap take on Handel's Messiah, which (as it so happens) is one of his favorite records. Up strikes a conversation, just like that. He tells me of his conversion to the LDS church and how his family thought he was bonkers. About how he moved to Utah to attend BYU, not telling his family that he had decided to serve a Mormon mission until he was already in the Missionary Training Center, so as to avoid endless debate on the topic. He laughs, recalling how they wired money to him in the MTC, stating that they were sure he'd been brainwashed into the mission idea, and explaining that they wanted him to use the wired money to bribe his way out of the missionary cult prison compound thingy. About how he had gone on to serve a two-year mission in Italy and graduate from BYU and for some bizarre reason (I was dying to know but didn't ask), settle in the Provo area. He insists that despite the culture shock he'd experienced in transitioning between life as a South Carolina Baptist and that of a Utah Mormon, the only moments he regrets joining the LDS church are while sitting in a mostly-white congregation each Sunday and listening to us warble the hymns sans fire or feeling.

This is just the coolest thing, thunk I. He didn't seem angry at me for being white -- I was sure most black people must be at least miffed at white people. (I am exceedingly white, to be sure.) And I was mostly able to sidestep the topic of my cushy life as a privileged middle class white girl and how spineless I was by comparison. So far, so good.

Bonus: if there was any question as to whether my prior lack of black acquaintances meant I was racist, here was the answer: I had a Bonafide Black Buddy, folks! I was now certified un-racist! I'm surprised I didn't ask him to pose for a photo with me as hard proof.

He was more than a novelty, though -- he was friendly, intelligent, a storyteller. I started to have a crush on him because, you see, I get gooey over good conversationalists. I'd never been smitten with a black fella before.

Soooo here's where it gets twelve times more embarrassing.

But must continue in the interest of full disclosure.

What follows is the progression in my thinking over the subsequent weeks and months of our acquaintance:

Stage 1: I'm sure he's going to eventually ask me out, and what if we hit it off? And what if it got really serious and we got married? How would I deal with having babies that would probably look really different from me?

Stage 2: Okay, I've embraced the concept of sweet brown babies. But how would my parents respond? And holy Hannah – my grandparents?? They're good people, but they're from those transition generations and they still struggle a bit.....

Stage 3: Okay, I'm pretty sure I could convince my good-hearted elders to embrace the concept of a good-hearted black in-law and sweet brown grandbabies, but WHY WON'T HE ASK ME OUT ALREADY??

Stage 4: Ohhhhh, right. He's a way better person than I am. And he's in really good shape. And he doesn't eat sugar. At all. Ever.

Yes indeed, that was the internal monologue, and it took me several months to realize what I'd been doing. I had seen Quality Human Being and Stellar Latter-Day Saint Who Just Happens to Be Black and somewhere in my subconscious I'd reasoned thusly: I'm not getting any dates with white men because I'm not terribly sexy/sassy/saucy/whatever. Surely this poor man must be as dateless as I due to the fact that he is a black person in snowy-white Utah.* If I can be the Noble One to look past his skin color and grace him with my pasty affection I can get a better companion than I deserve simply because he has the misfortune of living in a land where low-grade pearls generally trump premium onyx (feel free to substitute your own cheesy color-themed metaphor here).

'Twas an icky epiphany. In my feeble attempt to be open-minded I'd failed to realize that it was entirely possible that he didn't see himself as a victim of his situation -- he certainly never acted like he did -- and that, though sincere in his friendship, He Just Wasn't That Into Me (as the kids say). That that possible future I'd toyed with in my head would be a condescension for him, not for me. That he might have his own misgivings about freckled albino descendants with soulless blue eyes. That he might rather remain alone than have to explain to his mother why he'd settled.

I've seen the same phenomenon since I moved to Salt Lake -- but unfortunately it's being played out rather than just imagined. A beautiful and whip-smart black LDS woman I know has been endlessly dating a white fellow who, while apparently not a bad guy, is nowhere in her league (in my not-so-humble opinion). Seems to me that he's stringing her along, wasting her youth. I suspect he realizes, whether consciously or subconsciously, that her skin color means fewer romantic opportunities and fewer romantic opportunities means that she'll put up with a lot more nonsense and a lot less substance than a white girl of lesser spiritual or intellectual gifts ever would have to. Of course, she appears to be the victim of the same thing I was doing all those years ago, so I must stop short of throwing stones at her beau...

Here's where you beg me to shut up and get a journal and/or a therapist.

I'm almost done.

So these dead, bloated memories bobbed back to the surface of my mind a couple weeks ago when I attended a screening of the excellent new documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.** I knew most of the broader historical information on this topic, but the outstanding element of the documentary was the interviews with black Mormons (African-American Mormons, to be more specific), many of whom joined the church before the priesthood ban was lifted in 1978. These are hopeful, faithful people and few seemed terribly troubled about the ban itself, but many expressed disappointment at how white members of the church often tried to explain the reasons for the ban (or excuse their own racist behavior or that of their ancestors) using false doctrine. They talk candidly of their individual struggles to reconcile their complete devotion to the LDS church with hurtful behavior -- some well-intentioned, some malicious -- of their white fellow-Saints. It is quite wonderful to watch. I get to pat myself on the back for all the stuff I would never do (the nerve of some people!) and confront things I'm still inadvertently thinking or doing that contribute to the problem. Not all of it is easy to watch, but it is clearly a strong step forward; it is cathartic, honest, hopeful.

As I've reflected on the film in the last several days and what it Means in the larger context of a faith that claims divine origins, I've noted that while Joseph Smith revealed many ludicrously forward-thinking doctrines, most of his followers have taken many generations to be dragged (kicking and screaming) onto the spiritual high road he laid out for them. Basic Word of Wisdom compliance took over 80 years and ultimately the threat of exclusion from our beloved temples. Most of us are still eying the radical Law of Consecration suspiciously despite Joseph's explanation that it is an absolute requirement of a covenant people. The seemingly ludicrous enormity of tracing family lines back more than a few generations for the purpose of temple work staggered even the most visionary early Mormons, who fell back on sealing themselves to church leaders until Wilford Woodruff proclaimed that it was time to actually believe what God had said and trust that if we tried to make genealogists of ourselves, heaven would open up technological doors. And though the full racial inclusion that Joseph demonstrated in the 1830s and 1840s*** was officially restored over 30 years ago (after 130+ years of partial exclusion following Joseph's death), many of us still have work to do on our individual hearts and minds, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.

Those who tell their stories in this movie know that we will get there – they know that Zion will happen.

But soonish would be nice, they say.

Amen, my brothers and sisters.

* Where there is still some cultural resistance to the idea of interracial marriage, though this is not doctrinally supported.

** Which I now own on DVD, so if you want to see it, I'm your girl. If you want to own it yourself, you can buy it here. If you're looking to pay less, Benchmark Books might also have a few left at their slightly discounted price.

*** Some great stuff I'd never heard about less-known early black Mormon priesthood holders is included on the DVD's special features. And also a 1954 take-no-prisoners sermon by Elder Spencer W. Kimball on the evil of racism, especially within the Church. My lands, it's fierce and fiery! And there's muchmuchmuch more. You really need to get your hands on this DVD.

Friday, July 03, 2009

A trivial epiphany.

It occurred to me, two days into the ad nauseum coverage* of Michael's Jackson's death, that Michael wasn't trying to look like just any white person -- he was trying to look like the Disney Peter Pan! Did everyone but me figure this out long ago?

How did I miss this?? It's so obvious, given his known Peter Pan obsession:

1) the increasingly upturned nose that everyone assumed was a surgeon's mistake or some sort of cartilage disintegration

2) the unnaturally high and sculpted cartoon eyebrows

3) the grotesquely opened-up eyes with permanent eyeliner to make them pop out just like Peter's cartoon eyes

And he didn't have to change his eye color, because the Disney Peter Pan has brown eyes.

Whoa. I guess if thousands women can go under the knife to be Barbie, who am I to single Michael out for scorn, especially given his traumatic upbringing? It was just so difficult to look at him without laughing or crying....I hope wherever he is, he's at peace with his former face. It was a nice face. A warm face.

* I loved the dude's music, but no one deserves that much coverage -- not even a dead pope.